Back in 2011 John Piper gave challenged his readers to support their understanding of ministering to the unbelieving poor with “strong pillars” of theological argument. People are lost and on their way to hell, and many of them are suffering in this life as well. It has always struck me as particularly meaningless and eternally inconsequential when churches use their resources to do that which God has not called us to do. The poor, as Piper said, deserve better than bad arguments with bad theological foundations.
Yesterday I made the case that the Bible does not command churches to use their resources to lower the poverty rate, and I quibbled with Tim Keller’s statement that Christians owe the poor as much as we can possibly give them. But Keller’s views on mercy ministry are really so extreme, that it is easy to be accused of arguing with a straw man (plus I want to take this to heart) so I want to explain what I see as a biblical view of mercy ministry.
Our response to the poor should be influenced by Scripture. The compassion of God is perhaps his most incredible communicable attribute, and is certainly His most discussed attribute in Scripture. Understanding this should guide any discussion about showing compassion to the poor. To use Piper’s metaphor, if our theology is going to be the pillars of our argument, then God’s compassion is the foundation. From that foundation are these pillars:
1. Understanding some of the differences between the church and Israel is essential to understanding how to care for the poor, and how to rightly apply God’s commands. While Israel was to stay in the promised land and transform her society (there were no food pack campaigns to Assyrians), the church is supposed to scatter around the world and proclaim the gospel, while transforming society inside of the church—not outside. This is seen in missions (Israel stayed, the church goes), as well as in mercy ministry (compare Ruth to the widows in 1 Tim 5).
2. Jesus was the perfect embodiment of compassion, yet he never fed the poor or “combated poverty.” He told John the Baptist that the poor “had the good news preached to them,” and then he sent his followers out to do the same. This explains why the NT commands Christians to meet the needs of those inside the universal church, but not outside (for my understandinging of the “Good Samaritan,” read this).
3. Simply put, the mission of the church is evangelism. All four gospels end with some variation of this command, and it is explicitly repeated throughout the NT.
4. That said, there is a huge difference between what local churches are called to do corporately and what we as Christians are called to do individually. Confusing these two leads to bad ecclesiology and a Shane-Claiborne like mentality about the gospel. Personal ethics should not be confused with corporate mandates.
5. The American church has fallen prey to what Marvin Olasky calls the tragedy of American Compassion. While God’s love calls us to radically change our lives, American Christians (often in the name of love) think the most loving thing to do for the homeless is to give him food, thereby enabling poverty and violating 2 Thess 3:10. Why would we want to love others in a way God does not love us?
6. The debate about mercy ministry is really a debate about eschatology and ecclesiology. If you believe the church ushers in the kingdom of God, and that there is no hunger in the kingdom, and that you are joined to the church/kingdom through infant baptism, then you should be out there getting rid of any social injustice that has crept inside your God’s kingdom. This is why it is so frustrating to see premils falling for the plastic version of justice offered by community organizers.
7. Materialism is the enemy of not only our own souls, but of missions. If you close your heart to the poor to build a bigger barn for yourself, you are recklessly deceived about the condition of your relationship with God. Beyond that, every dollar wasted in luxury, on food for those who don’t work, or in trying to undo the “psychological and emotional effects of the fall” (Keller’s words), is a dollar that is not being sent forward to heaven.
8. With all of that said, it is a Christian duty on both a corporate and individual level to make sure that there are no unmet physical needs in the church. There should not be Christians who are starving in any part of the world. It was Paul’s mission to minister tot he poor saints in Jerusalem, and that same mission extends to us today.
The foundation is God’s compassion. The pillars are: discontinuity, the compassion of Jesus, the Great Commission, a right understanding of the corporate church, a biblical concept of love, the hope in a future kingdom, and the danger of materialism’s attack on missions.
The goal of all of this is to provoke you to understand God’s love for the lost more deeply, and to see how God’s compassion is the foundation for right thinking about poverty in the world.